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Turning Japan’s universities into genuine global players

by Nancy Snow

Special To The Japan Times

The balance of power between Japan and China has tilted in favor of China. I’m not talking about disputed islands in the South China Sea but rather inside the minds of the best educated in the Asian region. China now outranks Japan in higher education, according to the recently released Times Higher Education Asia University Rankings 2015. Except for the University of Tokyo that remains the top ranked Asian university, there are now more top ranked universities in China (21) than in Japan (19). China’s top two universities are Peking University at No. 4 and Tsinghua University No. 5, ahead of Kyoto University that is ranked No. 9.

I taught at Tsinghua University in Beijing and marveled at the level of English language competence. Students had English names to go along with their Chinese given names and they readily utilized English language media and scholarly journals.

Learning English was seen as a ticket to the world and Tsinghua had its own “English enthusiasts” club that featured old Hollywood movies. I was asked to vote for the best English written essay about “Roman Holiday” starring Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck. Not once did I sense that English was viewed as an import language or a threat to Chinese history and culture. It was an enhancer, not a burden, embraced for what it could do to advance the ambitions of the Chinese university students.

Many of those students asked me to write letters of recommendation so that they could attend top ranked American universities. Anything below the top 50 wasn’t considered. Needless to say, those students kept me on top of my game in teaching and research. Their scholarly ambition fed my own productivity. I often met with students outside the classroom at a local Starbucks where we would discuss their dreams and career ambitions. It was a lively exchange fueled by a back-and-forth ability to converse in global English.

One day I was returning on my bicycle from teaching a class when a young Chinese woman on her bicycle abruptly stopped me. She asked if I could meet with her to discuss graduate school. Normally I wouldn’t advise someone outside of my classroom, but she seemed so eager to meet. When we did, she explained that studying in America was her lifelong dream. A letter of recommendation from me could in her words, “change her life.”

When I told her that since she wasn’t in any of my classes I personally couldn’t write her letter of recommendation, she was devastated. She said that Chinese faculty did not regularly meet with students outside of class or write letters of recommendation, so she was relying on a complete stranger American professor to help.

Despite her disappointment, my meetings with so many Chinese university students helped to illustrate China’s global rise in the 21st century. These students who were enrolled at one of China’s and Asia’s best universities were still hungry for options beyond China’s borders. Things that I had taken for granted as a global educator were life-changing events to them. I’ve never felt so appreciated as an educator.

In contrast, I’ve taught and guest lectured at dozens of Japanese universities and rarely do I meet a student who asks me about pursuing graduate education overseas. I’m rarely asked anything during a class lecture. In comparison to the Chinese classroom where my graduate students regularly asked me questions, the Japanese classroom is rather silent.

I know all the explanations for this, how Japanese students are prepared for exams and discouraged from questioning the teacher, among other cultural heritage differences. In my many guest lectures I have gotten quite used to the quiet but it still frustrates.

Simply put, if Japan wants to raise its own profile in the world, along with its universities, it must place greater emphasis on group discussion, debate and public presentation.

If globalization were a person, it would be an extrovert skilled in the art of conversation and persuasion, and English (whether second or native language) would be its tool of interpersonal communication.

This globalization “person” skilled in public presentation is not the cultural norm for Japan, a country that historically has been a bit put off by skilled speakers. Japanese studies scholars point out that public speaking and speaking well or skillfully tend to hold more negative than positive connotations. There are proverbs loosely translated as “smart in words, weak in deeds”; “an empty drum thunders loudly”; or “a mewing cat will not catch a mouse.” Despite this tendency, Japan can change and it is changing with a more open embrace of the global.

In the last several years there has been a more concerted government-led effort to globalize the Japanese university. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has called for making 10 Japanese universities qualify among the world’s top 100 universities by 2020. It’s an unlikely goal, but it doesn’t mean that Japan shouldn’t aim beyond the stars in globalizing the campus.

I would start with creating an atmosphere that is more welcoming to senior foreign faculty. I retired from a full professorship last year in the United States but have not felt like many Japanese universities would have a place for me.

Several Japanese faculty friends have told me that foreign faculty are sometimes seen as indulged and spoiled in comparison to their Japanese counterparts. Perhaps we are, but that’s more of a reflection of the workload of Japanese faculty. Japanese faculty generally teach an overload of courses. In exchange they aren’t expected to publish much because there is no promotional payoff to scholarship.

International faculty like myself arrive from a university setting where scholarship is as important as teaching, often more important. It is that scholarship that helps put us and our universities on the global map of recognition. Not only that, but foreign faculty at some of the world’s top universities do a lot of media interviews and public speaking at national and international conferences, activities which may be seen as outshining some Japanese faculty counterparts.

Recently a Japanese university expressed interest in hiring me with the proposed title of distinguished professor. This would be a brand new position and the main worry was not salary but how such a new position might impact the wa (harmony) of the campus. Would it incite jealousy among existing faculty?

As long as Japanese universities continue to operate in a zero-sum atmosphere (you win, I lose), then we can expect smaller gains in Japan’s global rankings.

Japan’s universities can be globally competitive. It will require doing more with less. Right now there are over 700 colleges and universities in Japan, an unsustainable number. Japan will have to close some of the less competitive universities and at least double or triple the number of foreign faculty.

A common myth is that faculty from overseas demand salaries that are double to triple their Japanese counterparts. This myth is based on the supposed excessive salaries for professors in the United States and elsewhere. For the record, my salary as a full professor at a state university was not six figures, but if I taught over the summer and spoke at international conferences it tilted in that direction.

Nevertheless, there is more to being a foreign faculty than just a salary. We global educators who live and work in Japan are here because we want to help internationalize the university. We are not here to be a threat, an imposition, or a spoiled onlooker. Rather, view us as brand ambassadors for globalization and let us help you shine.

Nancy Snow, Ph.D., is an Abe Fellow and visiting professor at Keio University and author/editor of 10 books. Her book on Brand Japan will be released later this year. www.nancysnow.com.